Plant bulbs now for dazzling color next spring

Bulb flowers signal the rebirth of spring with a color show that is unmatched any other time of the year. Vibrant shades of red, blue, purple, pink, yellow and orange - highlighted by bands of white - glitter in the early sunshine.

To effectively create such masses of color, you should plant spring-flowering bulbs annually. Given the large number of species and cultivars available, it is easy to vary planting schemes from one year to the next. Because spectacular color is the most significant characteristic of spring-flowering bulbs, starting with a clean slate each year has its advantages, generating an ever-changing vista of color and providing fresh, vigorous bulbs.

Whether in contrasting or complementary shades, achieving a bulb-flower color mass requires you to plant every square foot of space. For the larger types (tulips, narcissi and hyacinths), allow 4 inches, at most, from the center of one bulb to the center of the next. This is approximately 80 bulbs per square yard.

The most valuable characteristic of tulips is their ability to create a dense swath of color. Narcissi, on the other hand, regardless of number, appear less massive and lend a more natural look to a planting. Adding them to tulips takes the rigid edge off the latter's appearance. Hyacinths, too, have a formal look that the addition of narcissi eases somewhat. However, the color palate of hyacinths is much smaller than that of tulips, limiting their design options.

You can use color to lead the viewer's eye smoothly from one grouping of flowers to the next. Make gentle transitions by easing from one tone to another within the same color group, or dramatically jump from any spot on the color wheel (see "Color wheel," page 26) directly opposite to its complementary hue.

Use warm colors close to the viewer and cool colors farther away to heighten the spatial effect. The appearance of space between foreground and background increases because warm colors seem to advance while cool colors seem to retreat into the background. The result is that the entire space appears larger.

Massed color is especially advantageous for plantings that you design for impact from a distance. In addition, lines play an important role in such plantings. Straight lines provide a powerful effect, especially in long, narrow planted areas as seen from their most common viewpoint. The scene appears to flow gradually past the eyes of passers-by.

Three months of color Tulips also are crucial to the development of the spring-color show because of their extended range of bloom times - a stretch of some 10 weeks from the earliest- to the latest-blooming varieties.

Narcissi make up the next most numerous and important group, again offering about 10 weeks of bloom time - from Narcissus 'February Gold' through the yellow jonquil 'Baby Moon' - and many different flower shapes and sizes, although the color range certainly cannot compete with tulips.

In planning designs and color schemes, hyacinths, grape hyacinths, and - to a lesser degree - crocus, allium, scilla and Spanish bluebells help round out the picture. Crocus and Scilla sibirica flower early, generally in March or early April. Hyacinths arrive a bit later, generally spanning the mid-April through mid-May period. April also sees the arrival of grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum).

In May, or sometimes early June, the spring bulb show presents two lesser-used varieties - Hyacinthoides hispanica (Spanish bluebells, in blue, pink or white) and Allium moly (yellow, star-shaped flowers) - both of which deserve greater use. By carefully making choices among these types, you can create a color show that spans 3 months.

Double-decker or layered planting It's an idea as simple as it is ingenious: Plant one layer of bulbs above another - larger bulbs on the bottom, smaller ones on top. Double-decker planting (see Photo 2, page 26) allows for maximum use of available space, as well as for the creation of fabulous - and practical - combinations. You can accomplish two major goals with layered planting:

* Sequential bloom, which lengthens the planting area's overall flowering period and provides a second wave of foliage to camouflage the withering leaves of the first.

* Simultaneous bloom, to provide contrasting or complementary color schemes. A couple of precautions regarding layered plantings:

First, consider the leaf mass when planning the types and numbers of bulbs in the planting. For example, some narcissi - particularly trumpet and large-cupped types (such as 'Mount Hood') - produce broad, rather than narrow, leaves. In combining these with Muscari armeniacum (which has quite bushy foliage of its own), allow more room than usual among the bulbs, or use a different narcissus, such as N. triandrus 'Thalia'. Among the tulips, the Darwin hybrids have broad leaves, and the advice for combining them with muscari is the same as for narcissi: Create a more spacious planting or substitute a tulip with less dominating foliage; for example an early tulip such as 'Prominence' or 'Yokohama'.

Second, know that weather conditions can affect the bloom time of bulbs differently, causing one bulb type to develop faster than another. For example, Scilla sibirica and Anemone blanda can bloom considerably earlier than usual in a warm spring. However, tulips will not bloom more than a few days faster than they might have otherwise. You can do nothing about this, but be aware that weather has some bearing on the success of designs that rely on a certain blooming sequence.

To create double-decker plantings, plant the larger bulbs (tulips, hyacinths, narcissi, alliums, crown imperials), cover them with a thin layer of soil and then add the smaller bulbs (such as grape hyacinth, Anemone blanda and scilla) in a second layer. Although planting depth should vary according to the frost line in a given locale, in general, you should plant large bulbs two to four times as deep as the height of bulb and small bulbs at half that depth.

Some examples of the bulb combinations that bloom simultaneously include: * Early-flowering tulips, such as 'Apricot Beauty' (salmon), 'Prominence' (red) and 'Yokohama' (lemon yellow), with blue-flowering Anemone blanda * Early Narcissus, such as 'Foresight' (yellow), with white Galanthus (snowdrops), or * Narcissus 'Mount Hood' (white) above dark-blue Muscari armeniacum * White Galanthus (snowdrops) side-by-side with brilliant blue Scilla sibirica * Crocus (yellow, purple, white) with miniature iris I. reticulata (purple) or I. danfordiae (yellow). Bulb combinations to extend the flowering period include: * Purple grape hyacinth, Muscari armeniacum, or blue Anemone blanda, followed by a late tulip such as 'King's Blood' (red), 'Avignon' (red) or 'Don Quichotte' (rose) * White Galanthus followed by very early yellow Narcissus 'February Gold' * Crocus (any color) followed by hyacinths in complementary or contrasting shades, or the late Narcissus 'Actaea' (white with an orange center).

Bulbs with other plant types Bulbs combine well with other plants, too, especially when camouflage for ripening foliage is the objective. You can place them among deciduous shrubs, herbaceous perennials, ferns or ground covers. However, bulbs also make great companions for other bulbs whose foliage is similar. For example: * Narcissus with day-lilies * Iris sibirica with Kniphofia or Liatris * Tulips with bearded iris. * Tulips with lilies (see Photo 3, above center).

Bulbs in containers Bulb flowers in containers can soften and humanize the often inhospitable environment around hospitals, homes for the elderly, office buildings and factories. The resulting friendlier appearance of such sites has a positive psychological effect, combating vandalism and increasing public appreciation of them.

Flower bulbs thrive in containers. Whether portable containers or permanent vessels with a removable inner receptacle, the main advantage to this planting style is mobility. You can place the containers where they will do the most good at any given time, re-arrange them as necessary and replace the spring bloomers with summer-flowering bulbs or annuals after the spring display is past its peak.

Of course, plants and bulbs in pots and tubs are more vulnerable to low-temperature damage than those in the ground. Thus, you'll need to protect them with a generous layer of mulch. A material such as peat dust is advantageous because you do not have to remove it in the spring. Where winter conditions are particularly severe, shelter the containers through the winter, only putting them in place once temperatures become more moderate. An alternative is to grow the potted bulbs in a greenhouse and place them out when spring comes.

For good results in the spring, choose a container with drainage holes in the bottom, add a layer of fired clay pebbles or crockery in the bottom of the pot and, for mixed plantings, use a normal potting compost.

In containers, as in beds, you can plant bulbs among perennials and small shrubs, or mix bulb types in layered plantings for sequential or simultaneous bloom. It helps to choose botanical varieties - for example, Greigii, Fosteriana and Kaufmanniana - for use in planters because they have shorter stems.

Plant as usual Regardless of location, you must plant spring-flowering bulbs in fall. For annual plantings, dig them up right after they flower - if you're going to discard the bulbs, there's no need to let the foliage "ripen" or wither naturally.

If you choose to let the plants die back naturally, they may store enough food to make them worth re-planting in the fall. Keep in mind, however, that the quality and strength of the second year's bloom will be less than that of the first year.

Carol J. Sutton, of CJS Communications (Toronto, Ontario), is the U.S. and Canadian representative of Plant Publicity Holland and the Canadian representative of the International Flower Bulb Centre of Holland.

Colors affect people's moods and attitudes. In landscaping, as in any other field that relies on color to create an effect, the psychological impact of various hues can play a major role in the plants you choose. For instance:

Red, orange and yellow - the "warm" colors - are mostly selected by sociable, gregarious types. Blue and green are the "cool" colors, more suitable for the laid-back type.

Blue also is the color of peacefulness and serenity. However, this color both recedes ("disappears" into the background) and adds depth. Along the sides of a planting area, blue increases the appearance of volume, making it appear larger.

Green has been called the "Great Harmonizer" in Oriental philosophy. The many shades of green present in nature represent the balance of yin and yang. In a garden, green harmonizes with all other colors.

Red connotes love and passion. It attracts attention and has a dynamic effect. Combine red flowers with shrubs and perennial plants with reddish leaves.

Purple indicates creativity and eccentricity and makes an artistic statement.

Orange is where dynamic red meets energetic yellow.

Yellow also speaks to us of cheerfulness and sunshine. The color of spring and new beginnings, it is the first color people look at in a garden.

In flowers, as in other areas of life, white signifies purity, innocence and peace. White-flowered plants lighten up dark spots, standing out beautifully against a dark background such as a hedge.

Here are several approaches to selecting colors for landscaping: Analogous planting. This scheme uses successive colors around the color wheel - such as red through orange, to yellow, then cream. Also, consider blue with shades of purple, merging into lilac.

Pastel planting. In this scheme, all of the flowers are in harmony, blooming in the pastel shades such as light yellow, salmon or cream.

Multi-colored planting. Here, a wide variety of plants and flowers of various colors and shapes are inter-mingled for a riotous effect (see Photo 4, page 26).

Contrasting schemes. From opposite ends of the color spectrum, choose flowers to make bold statements (see Photo 1, page 24) - for example, red with yellow or purple with orange.

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